A Williamsburg Chef Finds Persian Family Ties—and Feasts—Are Long Lasting

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While Louisa Shafia suspected her welcome would be loving, little did she know that a Persian epic of food would unfold.

Two truths became evident after I visited Iran for the first time last spring: As a guest in the country, you will always be well fed; and you will never do anything quickly.

Whether sampling date-studded rice and lamb stew from heaping platters set out on long table or a cloth on the living room floor, sipping afternoon tea served with rose- and saffron-scented pastries, or even eating the meals served on even the shortest domestic plane flights, it’s hard to find a moment in the day when an Iranian is not trying, somehow, to get you to eat.

It’s a process that will never be rushed, especially if it involves their country’s other central preoccupation: family.

As a Williamsburg-based chef and cookbook author with an expatriate Iranian father, I went to Iran earlier this year to explore my heritage both in terms of family and food, though I had no idea just how thoroughly the two would dovetail. For me the connection had begun in my 20s, when after growing up in Philadelphia mostly oblivious to Persian culture, I developed an intense curiosity about Iran.

(Historically Iranians have always referred to their country as Iran, but Persia is the name that the ancient Greeks gave to the former Persian Empire. Because our Western version of history was inherited from the Greeks, we thus became familiar with Persian rather than Iranian poetry, miniatures, music, food and even cats. For a sense of familiarity, and also to bypass negative associations that usually accompany the name Iran, many people, including me, now often use “Persian” and “Iranian” interchangeably.)

I explored the possibility of traveling there, took Farsi lessons and began playing around with traditional Persian ingredients like dried limes and tamarind paste, even trying my hand at dishes like tahdig (crunchy-bottomed rice) and fesenjan (chicken and pomegranate molasses stew made with ground walnuts).

I spent years researching and writing my 2013 cookbook, The New Persian Kitchen, and discovered a cuisine that I think of as “a garden in the desert,” where staples like rice, beans, yogurt and lamb get a bright splash of acidity from sour oranges or rhubarb, a crisp crunch from pistachios or fried onions and a heady floral scent from roses or quince. 

Yet despite my infatuation with Iran, getting there remained fraught with roadblocks. Because my father is Iranian, by Iranian law I needed to acquire citizenship and a passport, and I needed his endorsement and signature on my application. For two decades my father, having left behind what he thought of as a “backward” country, refused unconditionally to do so.

Finally I came to him with my book contract in hand, and explained that visiting Iran was necessary for my career. In 2011 he begrudgingly agreed to sign off, but after several hangups, I didn’t receive my passport until two years later. Too late to research my book, but not too late to realize my dream.

So in May of this year, I bought a plane ticket and found myself, miraculously, in the semi-arid capital of Tehran at my cousin Parvaneh’s house, face-to-face with the family, culture and food that I had wanted to understand for so long.

If anyone embodied my elusive bond with Iran, it was my grandmother Robabeh, who died in 1973 — whom everyone told me I had an uncanny resemblance to, but whom I had never met, nor even spoken to over crackling long-distance phone lines. With my cousin, I was setting out to meet my closest connection to Robabeh — my great aunt Betjat, her last surviving sibling, who lived two hours northwest from Tehran in the city of Qazvin.

While I suspected my welcome would be loving, little did I know just how prodigiously my Iranian family was going to feed me over the next 12 hours: A Persian epic of food was about to unfold.

It began with a classic Iranian breakfast. Early on the morning of our drive, Parvaneh, a dentist and mother of two whom I often referred to as my “guardian angel” in Iran, set out a fragrant bread basket. It was stacked with warm, oval-shaped barbari bread, topped with onion-scented nigella seeds and perforated with seams; and delicate, papery sangak, which is baked in sheets the size of a small child on smooth river stones.

We folded the bread around paneer, the mild white cheese that’s eaten across the Middle East and South Asia, and smeared it with cherry jam and honey in the comb. We popped back toasted walnuts, radishes and the sour green plums that were then in season. Finally, we drank mugs of hot black tea flavored with cardamom that we filled from a stovetop samovar. On the way out of town, we stopped to pick up my sweet aunt Shahin, a retired schoolteacher who was the widow of my father’s oldest brother, Hadi. Shahin brought us to a local pastry shop to purchase puffy, flourless, nut-studded qurabiya cookies — something like a Persian macaroon — as a hostess gift. In typically generous Iranian fashion, the shop owner offered me one, so despite my large breakfast, I ate that too.

By the time the three of us arrived in Qazvin, it was lunchtime. My family took me to a restaurant where I could try the local specialty qeymeh nesar, a thick stew made from lamb and pistachios and served with saffron rice, which we washed down with a generous glass of doogh, a refreshing yogurt drink that’s poured over ice and seasoned with salt and mint.

After lunch, we sought out a bakery famous for nan-e nokhodchi and pahderaze, rich, sandy-textured cookies made with chickpea flour and rice flour. There, my relatives bought me deluxe gift boxes festooned in elaborate Farsi script to take home, knowing my father would fondly remember these cookies from his childhood.

When we finally reached Betjat’s house, we were ushered into the living room, dominated by a vast, intricately woven Persian rug of muted grays and blues, where my great aunt was seated in a throne-like chair by the door. She was silver-haired and stocky, with a poised, confident manner, and a pretty, lined face that was rounder and softer than my grandmother’s. We exchanged double-cheek kisses and the formal Iranian greetings reserved for the elderly, and then took seats in the sofas and chairs assembled around the room. Like most such daytime visits, there were no men present. This allowed us to sit in comfort in the hot afternoon without a mandatory headscarf, which some of the more religious women would have felt obliged to wear in the presence of men, even inside a private home.

Various friends and relatives appeared over the next several hours, invariably bearing trays of more food: freshly cut watermelon and honeydew; a sweet, dense variety of local baklava made from ground almonds and stacked in layers, some colored orange with saffron and green with pistachios; ajil, a mix of pistachios, walnuts, almonds, dried mulberries and green raisins; and hot black tea served with nabat, or morsels of crystallized sugar meant to be placed between your teeth as you sip.

When a platter filled with neatly folded dolmen arrived — grape leaves stuffed with a tangy mixture of ground meat, onions, turmeric, tomato paste and sour barberries seasoned with lemon juice and dash of sugar — I had to surreptitiously loosen my pants. Although I was now stuffed to the point of pain, I was absolutely obliged to eat a few pieces. And of course, they were delicious.

That evening, before driving back to Tehran, Parvaneh and Shahin helped me check into a hotel, as the next morning I would visit the green, fertile province of Gilan on the Caspian Sea. Pressing on me a box of sesame seed crackers, some ajil trail mix and fresh fruit, my cousin and aunt reluctantly left me for the one and only evening I would be allowed to spend alone in the entire month I was in Iran. The solitude was short-lived: Quite early the next morning, I was surprised by a series of concerned calls from my relatives: “How are you? What did you have last night for dinner?” Incredibly, they were worried I might not have had enough to eat.

Persian hospitality has a long history. In his detailed travelogue Travels in Persia 1673–1677, the French jeweler and adventurer Sir Jean Chardin observed that, “when [the Persians] eat, far from shutting the door, they give to every one about them . . . Let who will come at their dinner or suppertime, they are not in the least put out of their way.”

Indeed, there is even a phrase for the way you are supposed to treat guests: mehman navaz, which translates roughly as “hospitality,” but is perhaps better described as “making guests feel honored.” In practice, it means that when a guest comes to your home, you feed them with the choicest piece of meat at the table and drop everything you’re doing to make them the center of attention — even if you’re exhausted or in a bad mood.

Just by virtue of being a foreigner, I was an honored guest everywhere I went. I learned about mehman navaz when I was walking through a bazaar in Gilan Province the day after visiting my great aunt: As soon as shopkeepers found out I was a visitor — from Brooklyn, no less — they insisted on giving me tastes of their pomegranate molasses, pickles, herb paste or whatever it was they were selling. They wouldn’t do this for locals, my Iranian guide explained — this was special treatment.

Perhaps Iranians are able to offer this kind of generosity simply because they take the time to do so. As I said before, nobody rushes in Iran, and nowhere is this more evident than at mealtimes.

In Iran, every woman I met with her own family took the time to cook at least once a day — making saffron rice, a slow-cooked stew with lamb or chicken cooked with herbs or fruit, plus a condiment like an eggplant dip and a salad, all from scratch — even if she held a demanding job. (Men cook too, but more for special occasions or on weekends.)

Indeed that day at my great aunt’s house, as we ate, my aunts, cousins and I talked about our family — who had had babies, who had died, who else like me was coming to visit from abroad — and she allowed me to take a rare photo of her without a headscarf to show to my Dad back at home. (I was told in plain terms that the photo was to be seen by my father only, and not by any men that Betjat didn’t know, in accordance with Islamic law.)

Betjat didn’t speak any English and my Farsi is limited, but she made me feel welcome with smiles, questions about my life that were translated by my cousin, and of course by gesturing frequently to the many platters of food before us.

As she noticed that my cousin and I were getting sleepy in the warmth of the Iranian desert afternoon, and fighting off a proper Persian food coma, she said we were welcome to nap in one of her bedrooms. I felt ready to pass out, but I looked to Parvaneh for the correct response.

“Let’s go!” she said assuredly, and off we went to a breezy room that contained two twin beds. I slipped under the sheets, feeling entirely relaxed knowing that, comfortably stuffed and wrapped in the warm embrace of my Iranian family, I had all the time in the world.

On Mondays beginning September 15, author Louisa Shafia will host Lakh Lakh, a pop-up series of Iranian street food dinners based on her trip at Porsena Extra Bar in Manhattan. Find the menu for the first dinner here; for tickets, visit lucidfood.com. Click here for Louisa Shafia’s recipe for her family’s Persian-style stuffed grape leaves. 

Photo credit: Lauren Volo 

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Louisa Shafia is the author of The New Persian Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2013), winner of Food52’s Piglet award for best cookbook of the year. She has cooked at notable restaurants in San Francisco and New York, including Millennium, Aquavit and Pure Food and Wine and she designed a menu of fresh, healthy Persian food for Café Nadery. In the fall of 2014, Louisa will be cooking a series of pop-up Iranian street food dinners inspired by her trip to Iran. To see her schedule of upcoming events visit lucidfood.com.